(P053)
Ethnographies of Art, Materiality and Representation: Between Art History and Anthropology, A SOAS Tradition
Location SOAS Senate House - S108
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 14:30
Sessions 1

Convenors

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Short abstract

Round-table discussion reflecting on the relationship between anthropological and art historical approaches to world art and material culture, and exploring the distinctive contribution of SOAS scholarship in this field.

Long abstract

There is a long history of the study of art and material culture at SOAS, which is co-hosting the 2018 RAI Conference. In this round-table discussion, we seek to reflect on the relationship between anthropological and art historical approaches to the study of art, materiality and representation, while also considering the distinctive contribution of SOAS scholarship in this field. In particular we explore the use and adaptation of ethnographic and participatory methods to explore art (and artisan) worlds, and how these methodological approaches vary across different regional and cultural contexts. Each participant is invited to present a 'keyword' that relates to their own research trajectory, while also opening up a broader discussion on aspects of the relationship between anthropology, art history and the study of art and material culture. All participants have associations with SOAS, past or present, and include Ruth Phillips, John Picton, Richard Fardon, Clare Harris, Will Rae, David Pratten, Fabio Gygi, and Elsbeth Court.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Bricolage'

Author: John Picton (SOAS) email

Short abstract

Making art is a 'do-it-yourself' process, and artists begin by looking at what other artists do, beginning with the 'schemata of tradition' (Gombrich) and the 'debris of events' (Levi-Strauss).

Long abstract

John Picton, Emeritus Professor of African Art, was appointed to the Africa Department at SOAS in 1979 to develop the teaching of African art. But he was not appointed as an anthropologist: the university classified him as an art historian! Previously, he had worked for nine years in the Nigerian Government Department of Antiquities, followed by another nine in the British Museum. His publications address Yoruba and Edo (Benin) sculpture; masquerade; textile history; the Niger-Benue confluence region, especially Ebira; and developments in sub-Saharan visual practice since the mid-19th century. He arrived in Nigeria in June 1961, within the first year of Independence, as curator of the Lagos museum, with its unrivalled collections, also encountering lively masquerade practices on Lagos Island and the works of artists forging a new Nigerian Modernism. Thinking of art as bricolage gets us away from rigid categorizations, whether ethnic, temporal or disciplinary, so we can see just what artists do.

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Evidence'

Author: Richard Fardon (SOAS) email

Short abstract

What different types of evidence do anthropology and art history bring to bear on similar questions concerning art and material culture? How do they deal with the absence or inadequacy of evidence?

Long abstract

Richard Fardon joined SOAS thirty years ago as a social anthropologist with particular interest in West Africa. In addition to more theoretical works in anthropology and biography, his writings on West Africa have addressed, often collaboratively with colleagues from other disciplines, various artistic forms: literature, film, masquerade, figure sculpture, and ritual among them. He has been struck by the different types of evidence the disciplines bring to bear on rather similar questions, and how in particular they both deal with the absence or inadequacy of evidence, and attempt to communicate these deficiencies to those who hold objects (museums, individuals, and the interconnected institutions of the art market).

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Exchange'

Author: Ruth Phillips (Carleton University) email

Short abstract

How do processes of exchange - understood as both the circulation of art as commodities or gifts, and as cross-cultural communication transacted via works of art - intersect in the contact zones created by travel, trade, and colonialism?

Long abstract

Ruth B. Phillips is Canada Research Professor and Professor of Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her doctoral research, begun at SOAS in 1971 and completed in 1979, was directed by Guy Atkins and John Golding (Courtauld Institute) and resulted in her first book, Representing Women: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Subsequent research on North American Indigenous arts and critical museology is published in Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art, 1700-1900 (1998) and Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums (2011). Current projects focus on global Indigenous modernisms and historic Great Lakes Indigenous artistic production as a site of cross-cultural exchange. She has served as director of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, President of CIHA and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

I am interested in 'exchange' in two different senses: as the circulation of works of art as commodities or gifts, and as cross-cultural communication transacted via works of art. I ask how these two processes intersect in the contact zones created by travel, trade, and colonialism and how art historical and anthropological approaches help us to understand the ways exchanges of different kinds shape perceptions of cultural difference and similarity.

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Mind-in-Matter'

Author: Fabio Gygi (SOAS, University of London) email

Short abstract

Fabio Gygi is fascinated on one side by the ontological commitments we make by making distinctions between inside and outside, and on the other by the practice of collecting and how accumulations of things embody notions of order, taste, and passion.

Long abstract

Fabio Gygi joined SOAS in 2013, where he is Lecturer in Anthropology with reference to Japan. He wrote his MA thesis on the ways in which the experience of materiality in the trenches of the First World War shaped artistic practices in the interwar years and how war experiences were represented and forgotten. This interest in the ways in which 'mind' gets stuck in 'matter' led him to pursue PhD research on hoarding in Japan and, more recently, in the West, with a particular focus on how hoarding has been translated into a disorder of the mind on one side, and how domestic interiors and their decoration have become points of contention on the other. He is fascinated on one side by the ontological commitments we make by making distinctions between inside and outside, and on the other by the practice of collecting and how accumulations of things embody notions of order, taste, and passion.

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Perspective'

Author: Will Rea (Leeds University) email

Short abstract

While perspective has been central to the art historical analysis of its subject, its articulation in anthropology has focussed on the analyst's viewpoint. Where is the articulation between the two?

Long abstract

Will Rea's primary research is on the masquerade and carving traditions of the Ekiti region of Southwestern Nigeria. He also works on contemporary visual and cultural creation in Nigeria. This research trajectory was inevitable after attending John Picton's SOAS classes as an undergraduate (although as a student of anthropology at UCL). After his PhD (SRU/UEA) he briefly taught anthropology at SOAS. More recently he acted as external examiner for the art and archaeology department. Working across the two disciplines he has been struck by both differences and similarities in standpoint. While 'perspective' has also been central to the art historical analysis of its subject, its articulation in anthropology has focussed on the analysist's viewpoint. Where is the articulation between the two?

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Politics'

Author: Clare Harris (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

Clare Harris reflects on how her research, publications, exhibitions and digital projects all bear the trace of SOAS debates on politics: in knowledge formation, in the exhibitionary complex, on the possession (and dispossession) of objects, and in contemporary transnational art worlds.

Long abstract

Clare Harris, Professor of Visual Anthropology at the University of Oxford, became an MA student at SOAS in 1988, having previously worked in a Tibetan refugee camp and taken a BA in Art History at Cambridge. In the early 1990s, as she continued at PhD level, SOAS was a hotbed of debate about how art from Africa and Asia should be studied in the post-colonial era. Those debates were fuelled by staff in Anthropology and Art and Archaeology, and by the writings of the doyennes of post-colonial studies. Clare went on to become lecturer in the Anthropology of Art at the University of East Anglia and then lecturer in anthropology and curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Her research, publications, exhibitions and digital projects have focused on Tibetan art, photography, museums and wider issues of representation. They all bear the trace of SOAS debates about politics: in knowledge formation, in the exhibitionary complex, on the possession (and dispossession) of objects, and in contemporary transnational art worlds.

Round Table Discussant - Keyword: 'Register'

Author: David Pratten (Oxford University) email

Short abstract

Register points us to the compass, range and variety of a performance. In the study of contemporary Nigerian masking the concept of register, extending from street gangs to national festivals, pop music to contemporary art, offers insight into the vitality of this performative genre.

Long abstract

David Pratten is a social anthropologist whose research focuses on themes of history, violence and the state in south-eastern Nigeria. David took his PhD at SOAS under the supervision of J. D. Y. Peel. The focus of his initial work was an historical ethnography of colonialism which investigated the events surrounding a series of mysterious murders during the late 1940s. More recently his research has examined issues of youth, democracy and disorder in post-colonial Nigeria with a particular focus on vigilantism and masquerade performances. In its musical and linguistic senses, register points us to the 'compass' of an instrument; the particular range of tones; the variety of a language, and the degree of its formality. From street gangs to national festivals, pop music to contemporary art Nigerian masks operate within contrasting aesthetic and performative registers. In the study of contemporary masking the ability to perform within a broad range of registers appears central to its persistence.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.